#16 food & farming
Vandana Shiva

“The Vibrant New Sciences of Biodiversity”

Vandana Shiva is spearheading a global movement for biodiversity, agro-ecology and a new understanding of the soil. On occasion of World Food Day, we talked to her about the origins of her organisation Navdanya, current developments in Indian and global agriculture and the future of farming.

DDD: Dr. Shiva, reading about the founding of Navdanya and your transition from physics to the point of intersection between agriculture, the social sciences and activism that is your work now was really fascinating. Could you tell our readers a bit about the situation in India back in the 80s and 90s that inspired you to create Navdanya?

Vandana Shiva: 1984 was the year I really felt the compulsion, the ethical imperative to start looking at agriculture. It was the year of the Bhopal disaster where a pesticide plant leaked and killed thousands in one night and has killed many thousands since then. The same year we saw the rise of the insurgency in Punjab where a combination of farmer protests and other forms of extremism resulted in the Indian army going into the Golden Temple.

I wondered, if this was about peace, why was there so much violence? What was the essence of the Green Revolution?

All the violence in Punjab forced me to sit up and take notice, mostly because I had completed my M.Sc. Honours in Particle Physics at Punjab University and I was used to a very peaceful Punjab. As you know, exactly a decade after I had finished my university studies there, Punjab exploded. It was the land of the Green Revolution that had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It made no sense to me that there was no peace in Punjab. I wondered, if this was about peace, why was there so much violence? What was the essence of the Green Revolution?

Fortunately at the time I was doing a major program for the United Nations University on peace, global transformation and conflicts over natural resources. So I said to them "Let’s talk about rivers here, the richness of land and land degradation, about farmer’s rights and the development model. I would really like to go into this." And they agreed. I did that research under very difficult conditions. I had to cancel many field trips, because busses would be blown up just before I was scheduled to depart, or trains were bombed. I still managed to complete the research and write a book called “The Violence of the Green Revolution.”

This process taught me a number of things that have become the basis of a lot of the work I have done in agriculture since then. The first thing it taught me was even though the rhetoric was about feeding the world, in reality it was about selling chemicals. The second thing I learnt over the course of my research was that the chemicals in the fields of Punjab and the research labs in Germany, the labs during the war, the Nazi period, were very intimately connected. The trajectory that they had put chemistry on is the trajectory on which industrial chemical agriculture called the Green Revolution in the third world is based.

We were not actually producing more food in Punjab; we were producing more rice and wheat as commodities.

The third thing I realized was that whether it is pesticides or chemical fertilizers, their origins are in that period. The Haber-Bosch process, the poison gases: They served as the basis for further research into organic chlorides, organic phosphates, etc. I also noted that we were not actually producing more food in Punjab; we were producing more rice and wheat as commodities. This realisation taught me to differentiate between commodities and real food. The 250 crops farmers used to grow in Punjab before the Green Revolution had been reduced to rice in one season, and wheat in the other.

There was one more dimension that suddenly opened my eyes to the social science behind it: You cannot degrade the source, destroy the water, put farmers in debt and not expect frustration and anger. In fact, a declaration from that time described the living conditions as slavery. We couldn’t decide what crops to grow, we couldn’t decide how to grow them, we couldn’t decide where to sell our crops, we couldn’t even decide when the water from our own rivers would reach our fields. These are slavery conditions and we wanted to break free. That was the first real change that I witnessed.

Creation is not an invention of the chemical corporations.

The second change I witnessed would come much later. Because of my work in Punjab, I was called to a meeting on biotechnology and the agro-chemical corporations in 1987. The war industry gave rise to agro-chemical corporations and they wanted to become seed corporations in the late 80s. GMOs were introduced with just one objective though: to claim patents and collect royalties. And that’s the day I decided to dedicate the rest of my life to protecting the integrity of creation. Creation is not an invention of the chemical corporations. And patents on life and patents on seeds are just so wrong. First, because they claim creation in the name of corporations, second because we know they are going to get smallholder farmers into debt, which is what has been happening in India ever since. That is really the reason I changed my trajectory and started combining the fields you mentioned. Though I can say that my mind still works like a quantum physicist.

DDD: How so?

There are no fixed particles in quantum theory as there are in mechanical physics; everything is potential.

First of all, it still looks for connections, looks for potential. I did my thesis on inseparability and non-locality in quantum theory and that is the big difference between mechanical ways of looking and quantum ways of looking. The second is that there are no fixed particles in quantum theory as there are in mechanical physics; everything is potential. I started to realize and see all the potential for being fertile or infertile. Seeds hold the potential to produce well or not, and plants the potential to be diseased or healthy. I have brought everything I learnt from processes of understanding and relationships into agriculture, which was still really mechanically defined at the time, based on the mechanics of war and the chemistry of war, as I mentioned. This is what I have been doing since 1984.

DDD: Today, in addition to being an important ally for farmers and banking 1,500 varieties of seeds, Navdanya operates a learning centre called "Earth University" at one of your biodiversity conservation farms. Who attends Earth University and what do they learn there?

They make hundreds or thousands of rupees every month and feel empty inside, so they want to learn how to farm.

When I started the farm, it was really a place for conserving diversity. We were saving the diversity from farmers’ fields. I would mention to someone that we had 100 varieties of rice or 200 varieties of beans. And they would say that can’t be, that simply can’t be. I hear “that can’t be” all the time. So I said let’s bring it all to one place where people can see it. Then maybe they will stop saying “that can’t be”, recognise it as reality, and start learning from there. Farmers started coming, and it slowly developed into a training centre for farmers at first, but today we get all kinds. I can’t really sum up the kind of people who come: We get young school children with their teachers who come to learn about farming, the soil or butterflies. We get young people from around the world, including Germany, France, everywhere really. These are often people who are in agriculture, who are committed to becoming farmers and want to make practical use of our knowledge. We also get young people who have done a PhD in Maths and Physics and want to become farmers. Today a lot of young people who have worked in banks and in the software industry come to us. They make hundreds or thousands of rupees every month and feel empty inside, so they want to learn how to farm.

The reason we call it Earth University is because we believe that when the earth expresses herself and nature is allowed to work, when we don’t kill the insects with sprays and they flourish, then you can see the insects at work controlling pests. When pollinators flourish and we have six times more pollinators on the farm and in the forest next door, people can see the pollinators and their work. At Earth University, the first thing is to learn from nature.

When I wanted to learn about farming, the farmer was my teacher.

The second thing is that Earth University combines many streams of knowledge. This is partly due to my own background and history. As you know, I completed a PhD in the highest field of science. Yet when I wanted to learn about farming, the farmer was my teacher. The women were the ones who taught me about seeds. I learned about agriculture directly from farmers. Our farm is still run based on the knowledge of farmers. They decide what to plant in which field. They organise the plants based entirely on their own understanding of farming. Then there are the scientists on the team. We combine farmers’ knowledge with the new sciences. Not a mechanical, fragmented reduction of science, but the vibrant new sciences of biodiversity, of agro-ecology, of studying the soil, food, and pollinators. We have people working in each of these fields collaborating with our teams, which is how Earth University combines all these streams of knowledge.

DDD: The situation for Indian smallholder farmers still looks pretty grim at the moment. According to figures from last year, up to 300,000 farmers committed suicide from 1995 to 2014. What happened to these people and their families that would cause such desperation?

The first thing to remember is that the suicides – as an epidemic and not just one or two people who find life too unbearable – really didn’t start until after 1995. 1995 was the watershed for globalization. The WTO opened up the markets, and corporations like Monsanto got to go into India and start controlling the seed supply. All the early suicides were in the cotton belt. Today 95% of the cotton grown is Monsanto’s Bt cotton. Every study, including our own, has shown that it fails. Karnataka has just passed a law entitling farmers to compensation when Bt cotton fails repeatedly. But there is a huge propaganda machine, of course, that makes it all look like a miracle in India. Then they tell African farmers that Indian farmers are becoming millionaires, so you better adopt it too. Our studies show that 84% of the suicides were because of debt linked to the purchase of Bt cotton. The cost of seeds jumped 80,000%.

This debt is the reason for all the farmer suicides.

There is no irrigation in areas like Vidarbha where we work. Native cotton used to survive very well there: It wasn’t attacked by pests and didn’t suffer from drought. Bt cotton requires irrigation and it is very vulnerable to pests, so the failure rates have been very high. The high cost together with frequent failure and the need for more pesticides pushes farmers deeper and deeper into debt. This debt is the reason for all the farmer suicides.

Yesterday I was in the land where India’s first independence movement was started, a place called Meerut. In 1857 Indians drove out the East India Company, which used to rule us back then. People forget that we used to be under corporate rule, initially by the East India Company. In 1857 the people rose up in the first independence movement. So I went back there to launch what we are calling the "Food Freedom Movement".

This new freedom movement is a joint movement for the liberation of the earth from being poisoned, polluted and destroyed and for the farmers who have been buried under debt and the new disease epidemic. Farmer suicide and the disease epidemic go hand in hand. Before yesterday’s meeting and the launch of this New Food Freedom Movement, we had just completed a survey that determined that 200 farmers have committed suicide just outside Delhi. This was because of the heavy rains at harvest time. 50% of the crop was destroyed. Farmers are underwater with debt already. And the globalization paradigm is based on farmers not earning enough. Did you know that European farmers dumped milk in Brussels because they are not earning enough from milk? The price of milk is lower than the cost of producing milk. The same exact thing has started to happen to the Indian farmer and our calculations show that a farmer today is earning one tenth of the legal minimum wage of the country, one tenth. It is such hard work too, all year round, in the heat, in the cold, the sun, the rain.

We are talking about the enactment of triple violence: against the earth, against the farmers, and against every person who eats food.

So yesterday’s launch was basically to tell citizens: You are suffering from cancer. Our surveys have shown a hundred victims of cancer just in one village. There is now a cancer train that leaves from Punjab to take people to treatment. We are talking about the enactment of triple violence: against the earth, against the farmers, and against every person who eats food. And this crisis is so severe that if we allow it to unfold for even five more years, we will no longer have an agricultural community. Many will commit suicide; others will just abandon farming. That means India will have no food security. All agriculture will be in the hands of giant corporations that serve poison, spreading more disease and destroying the planet further.

DDD: Your concern for food security does not focus solely on your home country. In a recent article on the situation in Greece, you mentioned the vital role of organic farming and urban gardening in feeding the population despite widespread poverty and austerity policies. How important will organic and smallholder farming be for our societies' future resiliency against crises, whether ecological or economic?

Either we have to act after the crisis, like in Greece, or prepare for resilience before the crisis.

I really believe that small-scale, bio-diverse farming based on seed sovereignty, where you have, save and exchange your own seeds, is going to be a central pillar for resilience: economic resilience, ecologic resilience, resilience to climate change, resilience to absolutely unreliable, dishonest markets that don’t in any way reflect the cost of production in the price people pay, along with political resilience in a period where - as we are witnessing in Greece - a few financial players are holding the whole world hostage. Either we have to act after the crisis, like in Greece, or prepare for resilience before the crisis.

I am so glad that President Hollande invited me to a preparation meeting for the Cop21 climate conference just two weeks ago. He did it in such a beautiful way too: They called it the "Summit of the Conscience for Climate". They said: "We don't want to allow these negotiations to be technical negotiations dominated by vested interests. We want the conscience of humanity to guide them." My talk was on how soil is the single biggest solution to climate change, both by reducing emissions as we shift to organic farming, and by absorbing emissions. I am so glad the French government announced that soil carbon is going to be their big solution for resilience to climate change.

DDD: Some have very high hopes that super crops like "Golden Rice" will be a solution to malnutrition in the Global South. You opposed this idea with an intriguing quote from Albert Einstein: “You cannot solve a problem with the same mind-set that has created it.” Could you elaborate on that?

Gladly. What is the mind-set that has given us the malnutrition crisis Golden Rice claims to address? The first stage of the malnutrition crisis: You stop growing nutritious crops, stop growing diversity. As our “Health per Acre” study on biodiverse organic farming in which we measured nutrition per acre showed, without increasing land acreage, we could feed two Indians if we intensified biodiversity and farming ecologically in India. Destroying biodiversity through what I have called ‘monocultures of the mind’ is the mind-set that has given us nutrition deficiencies.

The second stage in that mind-set is to assume that soil fertility comes from the factories that used to make explosives. This mentality has given us soils that have lost their nutrients and crops that are nutritionally empty and therefore aggravate the malnutrition crisis. Studies around the world, including a recent one published in the British Journal of Nutrition, show that organic farming can produce crops that are up to 60% more nutritious. Because we feed the soil and the soil feeds the plant and the plants feed us and we complete the cycle of nutrition. Without adding a single nutrient!

Make farmers and peasants your partners.

The third stage here is a linear way of thinking in one-dimensional monocultures. Some might focus on vitamin A. But food has to provide all the vitamins and trace elements we need. Vitamin A is not the only deficiency. Iron deficiency is more severe, as 75% of the population is now iron deficient. Even rich countries have deficiencies: zinc, magnesium, calcium, even vitamin D deficiencies are showing up now. Biodiversity balance has to be achieved for balanced nutrition. The final point is that when you bring biodiversity into the calculation, you realise that this Golden Rice will be highly inefficient even in providing vitamin A. This is the old mind-set at work again, based on using more water, using more chemicals, intensifying monocultures. All these problems are at the root of the malnutrition crisis. We need to change the paradigm and the new paradigm is: Work with the earth. Intensify biodiversity, intensify ecology. Make farmers and peasants your partners. Make women leaders on how to bring back nutrition, because they have provided nutrition to their families under the most adverse circumstances.

DDD: A more holistic approach is also featured in the "Terra Viva Manifesto" that you recently published with "Seed Freedom". It proposes a more decentralised approach to democracy and the economy that is strongly influenced by the school of thought associated with the commons. What are the commons and why should we care about them?

Only in the commons is seed true seed.

Shiva: Well, the commons, in my view, is anything that we share as a common foundation for an ecological life, our very existence on the planet. This means water has to be a commons because without water we can’t survive. Water cannot be privatised and that is why I have joined movements against privatisation to keep water in the commons. Seed is a commons because aid comes through the generations and needs to be passed down through the generations. But seed can only stay healthy and vibrant when it is exchanged. Only in the commons is seed true seed. That is why the patenting of seed is - in my view - a crime against nature and a crime against humanity. Our air is a commons. And that is why the pollution of the atmosphere with greenhouse gases and then the privatisation of our atmosphere through emissions trading is an enclosure of the commons. In my view, even knowledge is a commons. After all, no single one of us just creates all the knowledge we have out of the blue. We build on knowledge we have received and we share knowledge with each other. So the idea of patenting aspects of knowledge that are related to life and death is an enclosure of the knowledge commons.

DDD: In our interview with Hans Herren, we learned that he had received numerous death threats because of his work and activism. I’m sure that you could share similar experiences. What keeps you going despite the seemingly overwhelmingly powerful, dangerous and menacing opposition?

Shiva: What keeps me going is the deep love I have for the earth and her generosity in supporting all our lives, as well as my deep love for all human beings, particularly for the ones who are pushed to the margin, the vulnerable. It is that overwhelming love that constantly replenishes both my energy and my resolve. And yes, I have had death threats. Yes, I have had every attempt possible made to destroy me and my reputation. But I see it as part of the problem. I see it as part of a problem that is part of living. And I do not allow that to be my preoccupation. My preoccupation is still service for the earth and creation and service for humanity.

Interview: Patrick Delaney

Photo: “Little Sprouts are Sprouting” by Clint Mickel
2015 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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